Friday, April 10, 2009
Elements of Semiology
by Roland Barthes
Translated by Annette Lavers & Colin Smith
I cannot exist outside my language. But what do I mean by that? What is meant by ‘I’ and what is meant by ‘language?’ A self-reflexive ‘I,’ that is, an utterable conception of individual identity, is reliant upon language, upon codifying linguistic structures. But exactly which language is implied when I write ‘my’ language? Possessive of…? And do I mean a particularity – English in my personal instance? Or do I instead refer to a more generalized structure of signs that is indelibly fixed to my own person?
First, a warning. Unlike most of my posts, wherein I at least pretend to know what I’m talking about in discussion of a text, I am here fully prepared to concede my complete bewilderment in the face of the great Roland Barthes’ 1964 book, “Elements of Semiology.” I have little experience with an academic discursion of signs or the greater field of semiology itself. But, then again, what would be the point of a complete understanding of a text, if such a thing could even exists? Additionally, where would be the fun in that? Much more interesting, then, is an assertive approaching of the possible points of meaning, extended out to a line of infinites. My apologies, then, to any readers who are more conversant in semiology than myself (i.e. an embarrassment of many, many potential readers). By looking at ‘Elements of Semiology,’ then, I hope to move, from the position of my own writing, in an area exterior to the text, while engaging Barthes’ text through a close, an intimitized, approach. This moves beyond the language of the text to the possibilities of the text.
As far as I can understand, in this particular book at least, Barthes is also concerned with boundaries and beyonds - the insoluble unknowns of structure. Of course, to discuss signs with labels such as ‘limits’ and ‘landscapes’ supposes a spatial characteristic of semiology that is disputable. The definition of two planes – one of expression and another of content, furthers this spatial identification. Follow this conceit, if only momentarily. Barthes introduces “…the field of dispersal or security margin. The dispersal field is made up of the varieties in execution of a unit…as long as these varieties do not result in an alteration in meaning (that is, as long as they do not become relevant variations); the ‘edges’ of the dispersal field are its margins of security.” So it is along the edges that one is better equipped to grasp a structure’s totality – the boundaries are what give a thing its shape. Later, Barthes adds (in a quote I like so much that this now marks its second appearance on my blog) “It therefore seems that it is always on the frontiers of the two planes that creation has a chance to occur.” The creative act is, in many ways, also an act of discovery. For me this deprivileges the conceit of the creative act – it is more apt to envision an act of discover or organization, perhaps even a decoding.
What is discovered, and how is it done? Consider that society “…speaks the signifiers of the system considered, while the semiologist speaks its signifieds; he therefore seems to have the objective function of decipherer (his language is an operation) in relation to the world which naturalizes or conceals the signs of the first system under the signifiers of the second…” Therefore, a code is a concealed thing, and through an interrogation, we create a truth as it is also deciphered. Barthes ends “Elements of Semiology” with a statement of intent - a conclusion that exists as a calling for possibilities than for a finality. He suggests that “…the essential aim of semiological research (that is, what will be found last of all) may be precisely to discover the systems’ own particular time, the history of forms.” History can be freed from any linear expectations and allowed to exist as a modular and creative source. We also see here an insight into the linearity of research and investigation – to uncover a thing is to admit that the act of discovery exists as a chain of events. What are the syntagmatic implications of research and how does it relate to signs as a metalanguage?
By admitting that “…we must now face the possibility of inverting Saussure’s declaration: linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part, it is semiology which is a part of linguistics…” we move to a better understanding of linguistics. As language and sign become, perhaps, two entities, they still remain intrinsically linked. Even while attempting to extend semiology beyond linguistics, Barthes admits “…it is far from certain that in the social life of today there are to be found any extensive systems of signs outside human language.” Moving along this ambiguous fault line of semiology and linguistics, though, is most certainly a fruitful activity. Barthes tells us on the book’s very first page that semiology’s aim is “…to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment…” But by taking in any system of signs, a necessary organization or categorization occurs, doesn’t it? So, while we earlier discussed language and meaning as spatial, we here see organization as existing in time as well. The syntagm is “…a combination of signs, which has space as a support.” So here we see language organized spatially, while language can also be “…associated in memory...,” which is temporal.
Perhaps one of Barthes’ points that proved, for me, to possess the greatest clarity, as well as the most obstacles for me, is that of terminology. Or maybe what I mean is methodology? How do you speak about a language from within that language, or even any language, as there is no way to possibly step outside it? But, then, is it really necessary to be removed from the thing to discuss a thing? I can talk about myself – and isn’t this self-reflexivity a central component of identity? Barthes argues, through his investigation of extralinguistic codes such as food, fashion and driving, for really just “…how rich in extra- or meta-linguistic developments the notion language/speech is.” We must, of course, retain a mediator in order to comprehend a thing. But, then again, “…the signified is not a ‘thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing.’” Barthes returns throughout the book to the example of the word ‘ox.’ He marks “…the mental nature of the signified by calling it a concept: the signified of the word ox is not the animal ox, but its mental image…” As I understand it, then, when we discuss a thing, we are rather discussing a series of mediating signs, rather than an immanent isness.
It is impossible to reach a thing, but we can approach a thing through a series of mediators. So when Barthes explains that he will continue to use “…the terms language and speech, even when they are applied to communications whose substance is not verbal,” I feel the presence of such a circumlocution. We are always moving around the fringes and never resting at a center. There is, perhaps, no center, only a riotous dispersal that falls into a series of organizing structures through the mediation of what we decipher or parse. It is by seeking out the signs, then, that the signs come to be. I cannot exist outside my language. Instead, I always exist on the fringes of my language, self-actualizing along dark boundaries – unknown even as I uncover them.